Campaign Notes (The GOP)

The GOP-Heap after Iowa 2016, © Susan Barsy
In the wake of the Iowa caucuses, GOP candidates are dropping like flies. In a more insensitive time, they would be likened to the ten little Indians, who dwindled, through various mishaps, to the point of annihilation.

In truth, it’s fair to wonder whether at this point, with nine GOP presidential candidates remaining, they are not already annihilated.  Is any of them a nationally electable candidate?  Would the nation really elevate a Bible-thumping Ted Cruz to the presidency?  Would it tolerate having as its symbolic representative someone as indelicate and bellicose as Donald Trump? As priggish as Marco Rubio?  One senses it is already over for the Republicans—that, despite all the hubbub and incessant media attention, the party is in the throes of something ugly, something momentous, even life-threatening.

The ‘establishment’ of the Republican Party appears weak indeed.  It is being weakened cannibalistically, as hostile forces (the ‘anti-establishment’) eat away at it from inside.  Ted Cruz’s campaign manager, Rick Tyler, described the situation brilliantly in a post-Iowa interview with the Newshour‘s Gwen Ifill.  Usually, he said, ‘the establishment has one well-funded candidate, and the conservative [wing] has a lot with no money.  This time, we’re the well-funded candidate, and the establishment, there’s a lot of them, and they don’t have the money.’

The situation points up the party’s growing incapacity to influence who will become its nominee.  The national party structure is more or less irrelevant to the primary process, where individual choice and extraneous forces (ranging from mega-donors to cable networks) increasingly shape the candidate field.  The pruning of candidates is being accomplished by entities like Fox and CNN rather than by the Republican National Committee.

The fallout from Iowa, where the three top candidates garnered 75% of the vote and nine ‘trailing’ candidates split the remainder, shows the prescience of former candidate Scott Walker’s warning to his rivals back in September, when weak early poll numbers based on his debate performances prompted him to drop out.  Others should follow his lead, Walker argued, so that the party could coalesce quickly around an alternative to Trump.  Three candidates–Paul, Santorum, and Huckabee–finally quit the race this week.  By now, however, the opportunity to create an impression of unity is gone.

Be careful what you wish for.  The Republican party’s disarray and fragmentation is accelerating under the impact of  Citizens United, the ironically titled Supreme Court decision widely regarded as conferring an advantage on Republicans and the wealthy cliques selectively backing them.  Now it appears that, with outside money flowing into the campaign process unimpeded, the power of the Party to govern itself and its nominating process has been fatally weakened.  As Mr Tyler notes, candidates like Cruz, whom the establishment hates, now have the money and staying power.  There’s little to keep such creatures from claiming the party’s mantle–whether the GOP likes it or not.

Could Donald Trump Become President?

Trump being interviewed after the 5th GOP debate.

Could Donald Trump become president?   The most recent GOP debate left me wondering.  Until then, I trusted that Trump’s status as Republican front-runner would evaporate when the earliest primary votes came in.  Now, I have my doubts.  Trump, who has been a candidate for just six months, gave proof in the debate that he’s learning what he must do to keep his lead and garner real votes.

Moreover, even as Trump’s field of rivals narrows, his potential as a political leader is becoming more obvious.  For better or worse, he is the lightning rod around which the energies and ideology of the party are reorganizing.  Trump may be destroying the old GOP, but, without him, the GOP would be dead.

Trump’s zenophobic views have drawn condemnation from his opponents, his party, and the media. Most continue to believe that Trump’s star will fade, leaving the nomination a battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  But what if that isn’t true?  What if, confounding these expectations, a re-calibrated Trump continues to lead?  Not only are Trump’s tactics shifting perceptibly, but some of his ideas are beginning to seem more plausible.  Last week’s debate, which 18 million people watched, gave Trump a chance to qualify and explain the logic of his most controversial pronouncements, which collectively stand as a rebuke to the sort of political moderation that has characterized all our presidents, Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan.

In the debate, Jeb Bush warned that Trump would not get to the presidency by insulting people.  In fact, Trump pointedly refrained from belittling his opponents that night: he didn’t even attack Ted Cruz (who had it coming) given the opportunity.  Likewise, most of those onstage refrained from challenging Trump directly.  As Trump pointed out, though, moderators repeatedly asked Trump’s challengers to comment on his ideas, a pattern that only confirmed his centrality.

Trump’s doggedness paid off in the skill with which he defended and refined some of his positions. Beneath his intolerable soundbites are more focused convictions, such as that the government should be tapping the nation’s best people to thwart the internet being used to promote violence and terror.  Trump believes that neighbors and families who wink at subversive terrorist behavior in the US should expect to be severely punished.

Overall, Trump (who is not a social conservative) is tapping into a frustration that the US is failing to use all the tools and resources that it has to maintain internal order and safeguard its global economic supremacy.  A natural ideologue, Trump is carving out stands on illegal immigration and domestic security that are compatible with his interest in ending economic policies and practices benefiting rival nations at the US’s expense.  Trump’s intentions jibe with the people’s desire to see the value of their citizenship restored.

So, could a toned-down Trump garner enough popular support to be president?  Like it or not, the answer is yes.  Trump, Cruz, and, yes, Jeb Bush are shaping the parameters of this epoch-making campaign.  Could any one of them defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election?

For a transcript of the debate, click here.
For a fact-check of the debate, click here.

Good TV is the front-runner, for now

Montage of GOP candidates.

People are asking what I think of the GOP race. I think the GOP lacks a strong candidate and that any analysis failing to factor in the entertainment value of the debates is seriously flawed.

The candidates are in a phase of competition now being referred to as the ‘virtual primary.’  This is rather insulting to voters, because the virtual primary doesn’t involve any voting. Instead, the media scrutinizes other measures extraneous to the democratic process to report on how candidates are supposedly faring, consulting betting pools, Nielsen ratings, fund-raising tallies, and public-opinion polls.  By these measures, Donald Trump and Ben Carson are leading, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are said to be gaining. Figures like Jeb Bush and John Kasich are said to be fading, to the point of being on ‘life support.’

Significantly, however, none of the fifteen remaining GOP candidates has dropped out since Scott Walker ended his bid on September 21.  Many commentators had predicted a rash of drop-outs from among the supposedly trailing candidates come November 1.  Yet, for now, all the candidates have chosen to stick around, possibly sensing that the supposed front-runners are unelectable and that the state-by-state primary votes will check the speculative nonsense of the virtual primary.

If, in fact, Republicans vote en masse to make a character like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Marco Rubio their nominee, it will spell another stage in the decline of the GOP.  Old-style Republicans who believe in collaboration and the preservation of tradition will begin drifting away, looking for a way to regain their rightful preeminence as a political force.  Go-it-alone candidates like Rubio and Cruz and fringe candidates like Trump and Carson do not enjoy the support of the party mainstream.  (See David Brooks’s op-ed in the New York Times on October 13, which elicited a deluge of assent from readers disappointed in the direction of the GOP.)

In the meantime, we are witnessing proof of the entertainment value of politics.  We can’t resist the cattle-call debates, because let’s face it, they’re damn good TV: ‘good’ in the sense of being unpredictable, juicy, and tangentially relating to matters of momentous seriousness.  These are the very elements that define great drama.  The debates have a circus-like atmosphere and are analyzed in the same performative terms that the commentators would apply to a boxing match or a new theater production.

The televised competition among the GOP candidates is entertaining, fantastical, and engrossing.  The possibility of an outlandish figure like Donald Trump becoming president presents a wild challenge to our collective political imagination.  Notwithstanding his red ferret-like face and ridiculous blond comb-over, Trump demands that we take him seriously.  He plays a wild card, rudely blustering and defying political convention.  His behavior, seen in purely dramatic terms, delivers a catharsis that many disaffected Americans find refreshing.  Trump also embodies attributes that citizens long to see in a political leader: certainty and a conviction of being competent to ‘reign.’  His style is the antithesis of candidates who are ruled by dweeby advisors and focus-group wisdom.

Trump’s intrusion into politics gives us something to ponder: for, were this particularly entertaining figure to become president, the effect on our political culture would be profound.  Yet my sense is that Americans don’t want cartharsis every day.  For now, Trump and the other candidates supply a unique form of entertainment–one that will dwindle in significance as audiences turn into voters and go to the polls.

Marco Rubio’s problem

The GOP heap (after Scott Walker), © 2015 Susan Barsy

Marco Rubio’s problem?  He’s hasn’t done anything. Yes, he is skilled at talking and at winning elections, but he has a weak record of accomplishing.

Rubio is scrambling to be the GOP presidential candidate who benefits the most from Scott Walker’s dropping out of the race.  As I wrote the other day, a big factor for Republican hopefuls is where money and support drift as weaker candidates leave.  As they drop out, liberating resources, the market shares of the remaining candidates shift, reshaping the campaign.

Marco Rubio turned in a good performance at the debate.  Figures like David Brooks are talking him up.  Rubio has raised a lot of money.  He talks loudly about his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.  In the debate, he sought to impress by talking tough on foreign policy and trotting out his immigration plan.

Look closely, and you’ll notice that Rubio is an Obama-type candidate.  His career path is remarkably similar to the president’s, whom he despises.  A brief stay in the state legislature, then Senate election, and then  . . . (before youth fades) the presidency?  Rubio’s ambition is propelling him upward before he is ready.

Meanwhile, his lack of patience and success as a senator tells us what his presidential shortcomings would be.  Rubio wishes to leave the Senate without having figured out how to score legislative victories.  He hasn’t bothered to develop the relationships or negotiating skills that our interdependent style of government makes so necessary.  Being president would minister to Rubio’s self-image, but, when it comes to serving the nation, how effective could he be?

On immigration, for instance, Rubio is cogent because he once helped sponsor an ambitious bipartisan immigration-reform bill.  This was the impressive measure the Senate passed back in 2013.  At the time, the Huffington Post heralded it as “the most significant effort in years toward overhauling the nation’s inefficient patchwork of immigration laws.”

Republican senators proved powerless, however, to bring their more uncooperative House brethren along, so the initiative that Rubio and others had worked on died.  Now Rubio is touting his own reform plan that he asserts he could make a reality.  Given a president’s dependence on Congress, it’s doubtful he could make his claim come true.  Another young president who’s a weak party leader is the last thing this nation needs.

Yet Rubio is proud of his determination to quit the Senate in hopes of snagging the presidency.  Last week, he justified his failure to attend Senate by lashing out at a wrong-headed Washington establishment.  Though he hasn’t been able to alter that establishment as a Senator, he claims he can–if only Americans give him a bigger job.

Meanwhile, in the telling area of political endorsements, his fellow Floridan, Jeb Bush, continues to lead.  FiveThirtyEight ranks Bush at the top of the list in gaining the support of other established Republicans.  Rubio is near the bottom, indicating that Republican leaders view him much more skeptically than the media does.


Transcript of Senator Rubio’s remarks on his absenteeism
(courtesy CNN):

RUBIO: . . .  I’m proud to serve in the United States Senate. You know, when I ran five years ago, the entire leadership of my party in Washington lined up against me.

But I’m glad I won. And I’m glad that I ran, because this country’s headed in the wrong direction.  And if we keep electing the same people, nothing is going to change.

And you’re right, I have missed some votes, and I’ll tell you why . . .  Because in my years in the Senate, I’ve figured out very quickly that the political establishment in Washington, D.C. in both political parties is completely out of touch with the lives of our people.

You have millions of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck, and nothing is being done about it. We are about to leave our children with $18 trillion in — in — in debt, and they’re about to raise the debt limit again.

We have a world that grows increasingly dangerous, and we are eviscerating our military spending and signing deals with Iran. And these — if this thing continues, we are going to be the first Americans to leave our children worse off than ourselves.

That’s why I’m missing votes. Because I am leaving the Senate, I’m not running for re-election, and I’m running for president because I know this: unless we have the right president, we cannot make America fulfill its potential, but with the right person in office, the 21st century can be the greatest era that our nation has ever known.

A death pool for GOP candidates

The GOP heap (September 17, 2015)
The main question lingering after the CNN debate is which of the GOP presidential candidates will drop out next.  The question seems idle, but dropouts redistribute support to those remaining in the field.  Only after 5 or 6 more candidates drop out will we have a meaningful sense of the prospects of the remaining candidates.

Those most likely to drop out are the people we tend to forget are even running, like Rick Santorum and George Pataki.  Along with them, Huckabee, Jindal, Graham, Cruz, and perhaps even Rand Paul are looking highly vulnerable.

A company called Pivit runs a Political Prediction Market that includes a crowd-sourced ‘death pool’ on the candidates.  Anyone can register and weigh in, thereby affecting the real-time odds.

The question is, which candidates will benefit most as some of the lesser candidates drop out?  And would any of these candidates have fared better in a real primary than they have in mere opinion polls?  At this point, much of the public sentiment regarding the candidates derives from the sheer entertainment value of politics.

The strenuous character of Wednesday’s debate shows every sign of winnowing the field.  The odds of Donald Trump gaining the nomination have faded substantially overnight, as I noted in yesterday’s post.

Click here to view the real-time GOP odds.